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If you think you know who used chemical weapons in Syria, you are wrong

September 8, 2013

Full disclosure: I oppose bombing Syria because the US lacks moral standing to play global Sheriff. I also oppose the bombing because, if the US had moral standing and was acting in good faith, the past record suggest our government is not a very good Sheriff.

Although those are the critical points, this post concentrates on the excuse of the day, that we know that the Assad regime used chemical weapons. According to a recent AP story, working (not retired) intelligence sources are not at all sure the the Assad regime was the source of the most recent chemical weapons attack.  Although buried deep in the AP story it notes that ” Some have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war. That suspicion was not included in the official intelligence report, according to the official who described the report.”  Some members of Congress who have seen the classified summary of the report find it unconvincing. 

One of the key arguments the administration makes that Assad is responsible for the attack is the claim that the rebels don’t have access to chemical weapons. After all, false flag operations are a long standing part of the history of warfare,  so if they have the capability then Assad’s guilt in this regard becomes a lot less certain. (That Assad is a bloody butcher remains absolutely certain.) A Washington Blog Post includes citations of and links to a number of sources (including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post) showing that the fall of Libya gave a wide variety of groups access to chemical weapons

The same article also shows that on occasion Syrian rebels have captured and held for prolonged periods of time areas that stored Assad’s chemical weapons.  Further, evidence that the rebels are willing use chemical warfare includes this Haaretz report of rebel use of chlorine gas, as well as this Turkish report of rebel smuggling of chemical weapons. Here is the Google translate version of the same article.

So do we know that the rebels were responsible for the attack? There are many articles out there saying so.  For example, the following story from Mint Press (a normally very reliable source). However, there are several problems with this article. One of the main sources, Abu Abdel-Moneim, gives his real name. In a region where a coffee seller was murdered for saying he would not give a free coffee to Mohammed himself.  When the source did not ask for confidentiality didn’t the reporter offer it? Or at least ask why he thought he could survive his name being published.  This is not just a matter of protection of a source. It also goes to the source’s credibility. There should be some explanation in the article as to why the source chose not to be anonymous.

There are other stories too, interviews with retired intelligence officers and so on. They all have one thing in common. They rely on intelligence sources just as the administration’s sources do  – either directly  or indirectly as interviews are done with people who in turn have done interviews.  And just as the administration has incentives to lie, Russian, Iranian and Syrian intelligence have incentives to plant false stories blaming the rebels. And neither your nor I are in a position to tell who is lying and who is telling the truth.  For example, there is a great deal made in various stories of a supposed Egyptian intelligence report that the attack of the 21st was a false flag operation. The problem is that those reporting don’t read Egyptian. Which means they read a translation or had the report described to them. They don’t even know for certain that the report exists, let alone that its contents have been described to them accurately.

If everyone involved were pure rational actors, the rebels are the ones with greater incentive for an attack than Assad, since he has plenty of other means of mass killing available to him which won’t bring the wrath of the US down on him. But past history shows Assad not to be a perfect rational actor. A great many mistakes on his part have brought him to the point of fighting a civil war. So here is the conclusion. The Assad regime may have used chemical weapons. A rogue element within it may have used chemical weapons without permission, for which the regime would still bear responsibility. Or the rebels may have used chemical weapons in a false flag operation. And as of today September 8th 2013, only those responsible know for sure. Everyone else is guessing. If you think you know, you are wrong

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